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You connect the dots: Gosling in Half Nelson.

The Content of His Character

By John Rodat

Half Nelson

Directed by Ryan Fleck

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated—though slightly rebellious—junior high school history teacher in Brooklyn. He maintains an easy banter with his students, peppering his lessons with wry slang expressions (“Oh, no you d’int!”), which position him somewhere between teasingly accessible and outright clownish in the eyes of his students. He coaches the girls’ basketball team with the same blend of doting patience and goofy insouciance (“Not in my house,” he playfully trash talks one player during practice). His unkempt charm wins him indulgence from the kids, from the administration, from his fellow teachers, from seemingly everyone he interacts with—audience included.

Which is an important survival skill when you are a crackhead.

Dan’s got a rehab-proof coke problem, and as the movie progresses he spends more of his weeknights scoring and smoking rock, hitting the clubs and picking up sad, anonymous fellow partyers. His attention and patience begin to drift, and his work and relationships suffer. Sounds like a movie—or an after-school special—you’ve seen before, doesn’t it?

Familiar though the plot may be, Half Nelson is an exceptional movie. The film itself is a macro-reiteration of many of the complex and ambiguous lessons Dan tries to impart to his eighth-grade students: History is change; change is the clash of opposing forces over time. This lesson, the movie implies, holds true for personal history, as well. We get brief glimpses of Dan’s history in the form of a visiting ex-girlfriend and a dinner party with his affluent parents, but the filmmakers are remarkably restrained. Any conclusions drawn about the formation of Dan’s character are, at best, educated guesses—partial and somehow unconvincing. He is contradictory (high praise to screenwriter Anna Boden and writer-director Ryan Fleck for that).

After Dan is discovered freebasing, postgame, in the girls locker room by his student Drey (the remarkably self-assured Shareeka Epps), he tells her not to be to quick to judge. He does not defend the act, exactly; instead he points out to her that just because she knows this one thing about him, she does not know everything: “One thing doesn’t make a man.”

Coming from a guy charged with the care and education of a group of 13-year-olds, a guy who moments before was laid out, sweating, on the bathroom floor, high as hell, this seems fatuous and irresponsibly self-serving. But it’s the very heart and point of the movie. Viewers know, in fact, more than one thing about Dan, and about Drey (again, just incredibly acted by Epps). But Half Nelson refuses to do the math for you. You are presented an accumulation of character detail—all of it convincing, all of it affecting, none of it pat, none of it final—and left to reconcile any oppositions yourself.

Confidentally directed, well written and perfectly acted, Half Nelson is, perhaps, most exceptional and most satisfying in that it refuses to treat its audience like simpletons.

Just Like Humpty Dumpty

All the King’s Men

Directed by Steven Zaillian

All the King’s Men, version 2.0, is so tightly stitched together that one can’t help but note the hard work filmmaker Steven Zaillian put into making it. The much-longer original version was previewed and rejected by test audiences over a year ago; this two-hour cut is an honorable attempt to salvage something of this clearly big-budget effort. Alas, it’s a total failure: All the King’s Men 2006 is a bungle of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, a pale shadow of the Oscar-winning 1949 film and a travesty of history.

It’s the story of Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a crafty Louisiana demagogue—based on the real-life Huey Long—who employs his righteous anger, country wit and rhetorical gifts to become governor in the 1930s.

Oh wait, this version sets the action in the 1950s. This makes absolutely no sense. The moment when an American populist-fascist could have come to power was the Depression, not in the middle of the Cold War or the start of the Civil Rights era. A 1950s Willie Stark would have railed against the “communists” and the “negroes.”

Anyway, Stark sets out to end the free ride the oil companies have enjoyed, and do good for the poor people of his state; eventually, though, power corrupts Stark and he becomes a brutal monster. In this picture, however, the good Willie lasts for about five minutes, followed by two hours’ worth of monster. Even with Penn doing his best, this Stark proves to be monotonous, grim company.

If the film mangles the source material, with its grand themes of social change, economic justice and the decline of the Southern gentry, this error is nothing compared to what the reediting does to the poor actors.

Set aside the obnoxiousness of casting a platoon of Brits who wouldn’t know a Southern accent if it stung them in the ear. The recut destroys perfectly adequate performances by Anthony Hopkins (as a eccentric old judge) and Kate Winslet (as a daughter of the vanished upper class). Winslet’s character, especially, seems to have been shredded; her actions are mostly inexplicable.

The focus is almost exclusively on Jude Law’s reporter-turned-flunky and Penn, and that conflict just isn’t interesting enough, either personally or politically.

Not that the longer version would have been much better. Zaillian is a clueless writer-turned-director who knows almost nothing about telling a story visually. Worse, he thinks he does, and so loads the film with artsy, beautifully lit compositions that signify nothing.

Then there’s the genuinely awful score by James Horner. It’s an orgy of dramatic overkill, which . . . you get the idea. All the King’s Men stinks.

—Shawn Stone

Nuts

Jackass Number Two

Directed by Jeff Tremaine

Now hear this: Jackass Number Two is the funniest film of 2006. I know that’s saying a lot, what with the Borat film at the top of the fall release schedule, but I’m doubling down on this one. Because what’s funnier than a bunch of guys hitting each other in the groin? You’ve got nothing. I knew it.

Johnny Knoxville returns to the Jackass fray following a relatively unsuccessful foray into indie cinema (Grand Theft Parsons, Daltry Calhoun) and lowest-common-denominator Hollywood fare (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Ringer), supposedly having sworn off the madness after wrapping Jackass: The Movie in 2002. You won’t need to get to know characters or search for a premise here, especially if you’re already familiar with the franchise: Simply, Knoxville and his band of freaks seek to out-gross or out-punish each other for 93 minutes. The entire gang is back, including professional vomiteer Steve-O (rarely pictured in more than a Speedo, natch), Bam Margera (who displays a, shall we say, sensitive side this time out, that cry-baby), and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña and Preston Lacy, both of whom take their first dive into stuntery (that is if you count being smothered by a female sumo wrestler as a “stunt”).

But where the first movie was merely an extension of the ground- and ball-breaking MTV series, complete with grosser gross-out gags and more-bruising stunts, Number Two is played almost entirely for laughs, and it succeeds a good 90 percent of the time. There’s an obvious “Hey, let’s make a movie” tone throughout, from the production pieces that frame the film to the banter before and after skits.

And the skits, as potentially bone-breaking as they may be, are based largely on two of our most-cherished American treasures: slapstick comedy and Looney Tunes. (Firing Knoxville into the air aboard a giant, red rocket is pure Wile E. Coyote; all that’s missing is the ACME logo.) In fact, a number of the so-called stunts turn out to be pranks on various cast members—the film’s final big prank is at once hilarious, vile, and damn near genius. Step back, Ashton, it looks like you’ve been out-Punk’d.

Add to that some eye-watering cameos from Spike Jonze, John Waters, and Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar, and you’ve got a winner. Plus, several punchlines consist of little more than a nut-shot, and what’s funnier than that?

Exactly.

—John Brodeur


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